Some guys just shouldn't bother with the dames...
The original Max Payne was easily one of my favorite early Xbox titles. With a combination of film noir and graphic novel styles, it was easy to get sucked in, especially after you'd mastered the use of Bullet Time. Max Payne 2 easily surpassed it in almost all categories.
The first thing you'll notice is the change in the appearance of the characters. Models are more complex than in the previous game, especially in regards to the heads. Gone are the static photographic faces, which have been replaced with softer, more convincing textures, mapped to heads that feature mouths that move during speech. The effect was characters who felt more real, making it easier to become attached to the characters and story this time around. I’d originally been opposed to the aging up and conversion of Max into a stereotypical late-30s tragic badass in a trenchcoat, but it works well here and I actually prefer him to the younger Max. The entire world, even familiar places, feature better modeling, lighting, and textures as well. It's fitting that you'll revisit an area from the first game that's in the middle of renovation in the second. It may not be up to the PC version’s standards, but it’s still a beautiful game.
Bullet Time has also been changed up. As you take out enemies, your Bullet Time meter fills up. Once you’ve filled it up completely and keep pumping the baddies full of lead, the meter will begin to turn yellow. At this point, Max’s reactions become closer to real-time while everything is slowed down. Send an enemy flying and shoot a nearby exploding object to send him spiraling somewhere else. This becomes especially fun when you turn a group of bad guys into a midair corpse ballet. Another addition when in the yellow is the spin reload, in which Max spins while dumping clips, with the camera following him. On one hand, it may seem like a needless bit of animation, but in the case of a large firefight, it gives you a quick 360 view of the scene. It’s a great effect when you’ve just sent the last of three guys into the air. Once you’ve mastered the altered Bullet Time, you’ll find the real meat of the game and quite possibly lose yourself in a Zen-like trance.
The sound engineer is to be applauded, especially when it comes to vocal effects. Besides the standard face-to-face conversations, you’ll hear characters through doors, over speaker phone, over an intercom, etc., and each sample is convincingly muffled, echoed, distorted and spacially-placed. Explosions, gunfire, and environmental sounds are in the same league, as is the effect applied to them when Bullet Time is kicked in. When the world slows down with a full-auto machine gun, you can even hear the parts of the gun moving. And mind you, this is just using a stereo setup. The soundtrack features some nice arrangements of the original music, and everything fits the mood very well. The track by band Poets of the Fall, which plays at the credits, was a welcome addition that truly capped off the movie-like experience.
The only real issue that I had with the game was the short length, which also seemed to be the main complaint by most. For anyone who bought the game at $50, it was likely a disappointment. At $20 or less, maybe not. I’d rented it, beating it quickly and blazing through in half the time on my second attempt.
I do wonder about the addition of the melee attack though. Not once did I need to resort to it out of a lack of ammo, nor did it seem all that effective when I did use it. Perhaps more experienced players can go on a pistol whipping frenzy when Bullet Time has gone into the yellow, but I was so trigger happy that I'd never thought to try. Most likely, they just decided to have Max able to do something when the button was pressed while he wasn't carrying grenades.
The Bottom Line
Where many could easily dismiss Max Payne 2 as being little more than a short expansion disguised as a sequel, I found a game that improved upon the original’s strengths while tightening the design overall to help match the pace of a film. Not every story needs fifteen to eighty hours to tell. Besides, any game you can blaze through but still get sucked into and enjoy can’t be all that bad, can it?